Many Americans probably heard of Algeria for the first time in the 1975 movie “Dog Day Afternoon” where Al Pacino, trying to negotiate his way out of a bank robbery, asks the police to provide him with an airplane that can take him to Algeria. The movie reflected the popularity of Algeria in the early 70’s as a safe haven for global revolutionaries.
Four decades later, Algeria is a long way from that kind of radical mystique. For the country’s rulers and the general population, stability and incremental reform are much more appealing than revolution. This mindset could well define the coming period in Algeria following the re-election of President Bouteflika last week.
After January 2011, much of the pundits’ speculation focused on whether Algeria was going to be the next country to go the way of the Arab Spring. Even in the wake of the April 17th presidential elections, a lot can be said about the many challenges still facing Algeria as it attempts to tackle the uncertainties of political transition, the restlessness of unemployed youth and the evolving terrorism threat. But the “cascaded domino logic,” inspired by Arab Spring uprisings, has become largely irrelevant in the case of Algeria.
As waves of discontent were sweeping over the region, Algerian authorities took preemptive measures to absorb the ripple effects of the uprisings. Tapping into their vast resources, they increased public spending by about 25% to improve public service salaries, create new job opportunities and provide more public housing.
The unappealing prospect of radical regime change in Algeria provides the young and well-endowed Maghrebi nation with a precious window of opportunity for comprehensive reform; an opportunity which Arab Spring regimes in the region foolishly chose to squander.
That did certainly have an appeasing effect. According to The Arab Barometer, the regional spinoff of the Global Barometer Surveys, the number of Algerians who were satisfied with their country’s economic performance doubled from 32% in 2011 to 66% in 2013.
But that does not by itself explain why radical regime change was never an attractive option for Algerians before and after the Arab spring, as shown by successive surveys carried out between 2006 and 2013.
The percentage of Algerians in favor of gradual reform increased even more after the uprisings which toppled the regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In 2011, slightly more than half (54%) shared the view that “reforms should be implemented little by little.” Nearly eight-in-ten people (78%) held that opinion in 2013.
Algerians weary of radical alternative
Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, believes that after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, “many Algerians may have tempered their desire for massive changes, instead preferring gradual reforms of the existing system.”
Since the Arab Spring, Algerians have kept watch of developments in their neighborhood. They saw Libya descend into chaos as the NATO-led campaign felled the Qaddafi regime. The ensuing security vacuum there led to a dangerous outflow of weapons and fighters from Libya to Mali and elsewhere.
In January of last year, 40 people were killed by terrorists in the In Eminas gas plant, south of Algeria. Algerians saw the attack as directly connected to the deteriorating security situation in the region. The bloody showdown was also a painful reminder to Algerians of their 1990’s “black decade” when nearly 200,000 people died in confrontations between the army and Islamist terrorists.
Algerians, who are traditionally among the most frequent visitors of Tunisia, have been directly aware of the serious economic and security crises faced by Tunisia since the Arab Spring. Their country’s western neighbor eventually needed Algerian support to counter the threat of Ansar Al Sharia and other al-Qaeda-linked factions. Comparative perspectives have become part of Algeria’s new official narrative.
“Look at the neighborhood around us, make a comparison,” Abdelmalek Sallel, head of the Bouteflika re-election campaign, was quoted as saying by Reuters earlier this month. “Algeria is like an island of peace.”
Algerians’ sense of satisfaction with their government is probably cemented by the increasing dependence of the West on their country. Faced with mounting security challenges in North Africa and the Sahel, Americans and Europeans have continuously underlined the high stakes they have in the stability of Algeria and the operational readiness of its military and intelligence services.
In early April, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, at the opening of the second session of Algeria-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, his country was “very grateful” for Algeria’s “constructive role in regional stability not only in the east but to the south also.” Algeria’s huge gas reserves, which are vital to the West’s energy needs, have become even more so since the Ukraine’s recent events.
About a year ago, counter terrorism expert Ghaffar Hussein predicted that “Algeria has the potential to emerge from the Arab Spring as a regional power. It has a well-equipped military with counter-terrorism expertise, large energy reserves, a growing economy, and, more importantly, it is stable. This may be good news for western states concerned about the rise of jihadist groups in the region and trade, but it is bad news for Arab revolutionaries.”
Today, with the re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the unappealing prospect of radical regime change in Algeria provides the young and well-endowed Maghrebi nation with a precious window of opportunity for comprehensive reform; an opportunity which Arab Spring regimes in the region foolishly chose to squander.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country’s international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com